Allies move into town held by Taliban
British and American forces place cordon round battle zone to halt escape of 200 resistance defenders
Afghan troops backed by British and American soldiers were moving into the centre of the southern Afghan town of Musa Qala last night after the Taliban defenders withdrew, handing a symbolic victory to Kabul and the international coalition.
Though the Afghan defence ministry said that Nato and Afghan forces had "completely captured" Musa Qala, in the north of Helmand province, British military spokesmen were more cautious, saying only that progress had been made but the town was yet to be "liberated".
British and other foreign troops were still consolidating their position on the outskirts of the town, British defence officials said last night.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said their fighters had pulled out of Musa Qala to avoid Taliban and civilian casualties. "Because of the massive bombings this morning, the Taliban didn't want to cause more casualties, so this afternoon all the Taliban left Musa Qala," he told the Associated Press by satellite phone.
Taliban fighters have only rarely risked pitched battles against the superior Nato firepower. But it was unclear last night if the cordon placed around the town by British troops from 40 Royal Marine Commando and the Scots Guards, positioned to the south, and American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne division in the north would prevent the escape of the estimated 200 defenders, many of whom are local men.
A resident of Musa Qala, Haji Muhammad Rauf, said he saw Taliban fighters leave the town in trucks and on motorbikes around noon. Two hours later, hundreds of Afghan soldiers streamed in and established security checkpoints, he said. "I was standing on my roof and saw hundreds of Afghan soldiers drive into town," Rauf said. "All the shops are closed and families are staying inside their homes."
Brigadier General Gul Agha Naebi, of the Afghan national army, said that exchanges of fire were continuing late last night, blaming "foreign fighters or al-Qaida members" for the remaining resistance. Local military officials often claim the presence of international militants among Taliban forces though there is little firm evidence of any substantial presence of militants from outside the region.
"The town is surrounded. We are about 500 metres away from the Musa Qala market, in the centre of the town," Naebi said. "The bombing continues. The area is big. Tomorrow we will carefully clear the streets of mines."
Afghan army soldiers, mentored by foreign, including British, forces, will maintain a garrison there, officials said. Nato is keen to claim that a final capture of the town will be "Afghan-led".
Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) issued a statement in Kabul saying that it was concerned to respect the safety of the local civilian population. Isaf have been repeatedly criticised for inflicting significant civilian casualties in operations in recent years.
Local elders have claimed that up to 40 civilians have been killed in the fighting around Musa Qala, a claim dismissed as "Taliban disinformation" by British military spokesmen. Hundreds of refugees who had fled the fighting are now expected to return to their homes.
Retaking Musa Qala, which was overrun by the Taliban in February after British troops withdrew in an agreement which entrusted security to local tribal elders, will be a significant morale booster for international forces in Afghanistan and for the inexperienced Afghan army.
Gordon Brown, speaking at the British base in Helmand, said: "Succeeding in Musa Qala will make a huge difference."
It was now important to prevent the Taliban from returning, a senior member of the Afghan government told the Guardian. General Khodaidad, the Afghan counter-narcotics minister, said it was up to the Afghan army, the police and local governors to keep the area safe. "Otherwise Musa Qala will go again to the Taliban," he added.
Joanna Nathan, Afghanistan country director of the International Crisis Group, said the victory was "important but not decisive in the overall picture of southern Afghanistan".
"This clearly has a great symbolic significance for the British and for Helmand," she said. "The real work begins after the fighting when the government and the international community have to get in there and secure local consent and show that this is an administration worth fighting for. The aftermath is more important than the battle.'
One Kabul-based analyst stressed that heavy fighting has continued for months around Kandahar, the strategically critical regional capital that was the headquarters of the Taliban in the mid-1990s. "The Canadians [based around Kandahar] are very focused on their area and the British on their area and both tend to exaggerate the importance of what is happening on their patch," he said.